How is it that an issue with overwhelming bipartisan support, decades of research demonstrating its effectiveness and the backing of the nation’s top military officials, law enforcement personnel and business leaders is not a key plank of every presidential platform? As a battleground state, North Carolina has the opportunity to change that and to put early learning on the national agenda.
Smart investments in young children produce the best outcomes in education, health and economic well-being for North Carolina and the nation. That’s because children’s earliest experiences determine how their brains are wired. Child development is not predetermined. It occurs in the context of relationships, experiences and environments. As Harvard University pediatrician Jack Shonkoff says, “Brains are built, not born.” And because brains are built from the bottom up, much like a house, the first eight years set the foundation for all of the years that follow.
Given early learning’s impact on education, the economy and even our national security according to Mission Readiness, a nonprofit organization led by senior retired military leaders, it’s time candidates addressed it. We can pose questions like these to start the conversation.
1 In early August, the Washington Post reported, “More than three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers in the United States say they’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs or quit to tend to their kids.” A closer look at the poll responses underscores that finding affordable, high-quality care that supports children’s development and parents’ ability to work is an issue affecting families at all income levels. If elected, how would you help working families access high quality child care?
Candidates are already talking about the cost of higher education, yet families often pay more for child care. Unlike a public college education where families pay about 23 percent of the cost, about 60 percent of the funding for child care comes from parents, according to Child Care Aware.
When families feel the pressure, businesses often feel the impact. U.S. businesses lose $3 billion per year due to employee absenteeism as the result of child care issues. And 29 percent of working parents report that they missed work, were late or experienced reduced concentration due to child care matters.
2 In a bipartisan poll conducted last fall, close to two-thirds of North Carolina voters – including a majority of Republicans, Independents and Democrats – said that we should be doing more to ensure children begin kindergarten with the knowledge and skills they need. Unlike the K-12 system, the federal government provides the majority of funding for early learning programs and therefore has significant influence. If elected, what policies and programs would you support to ensure that each child has access to high-quality early childhood development that prepares them for success in school and life?
North Carolina’s poll is not unique. Most recently, a poll in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin found that a majority of Republicans, Independents and Democrats said that public education should start with preschool and should be offered to all 4-year-olds. And they were willing to pay for it. Again majorities across political affiliations supported increasing access to and improving the quality of early childhood education programs, even if it meant a slight increase in their taxes.
3 North Carolina mandates that the state assign schools with letter grades based on their performance. Student test scores account for 80 percent of the grade a school receives. Hidden behind these grades is the fact that students in the majority of our schools (72 percent) make or exceed a year’s worth of academic progress. It is their starting point that is vastly different. Children from families in the bottom quarter of income begin kindergarten on average 20 months behind their peers from families in the top quarter of income. When these students progress at the same rate as their higher income peers, they still stay far behind. If elected, what would you do to provide each child beginning from birth with the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential?
Quality early-learning experiences that begin at birth and continue through third grade can make all the difference. Duke University researchers found that North Carolina third-graders had higher reading and math scores and lower special education placements in counties that spent more money on Smart Start and NC PreK when those children were younger. The early years are so defining that by the time children turn eight, their third-grade outcomes can predict future academic achievement and career success.
In the coming months, North Carolina will be inundated with visits from presidential hopefuls. Let’s make early learning the priority issue that it is.
Tracy Zimmerman is executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.